The Hippie Trail, once a symbol of freedom and enlightenment, today is synonymous with danger and war

Tijana Radeska
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Between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s, many people took the opportunity to roam what was once Persia. Throngs of American hippies, wanting to get as far as possible from the capitalist West, sought places of “love and freedom.” The love-seeking route usually started at a European capital, most commonly London and Amsterdam, and continued all the way through Germany, Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Greece, and Turkey and from there to the Middle East. The final station was usually Nepal, with a prolonged stay in India, and many were going even farther to Thailand and Vietnam.

A sizable stretch of the Hippie Trail is now marked by cities that have been destroyed and areas that are forbidden to visitors because they are so dangerous.

The hippies were the successors to the beatniks, who during the 1950s held Kerouac’s On the Road as their bible, traveling across the U.S. in buses, seeking freedom in going wherever they wished and enlightenment through taking whichever drugs they could. During the 1960s, their attention turned to the East, across the ocean to Ginsburg’s glorified city, Varanasi, which over the years became the Mecca of the hippies. India was even more popular after the Beatles moved into an Indian ashram.

Routes of the Hippie Trail. Author: NordNordWest. CC BY-SA 3.0 de

The hippie youths from America could afford such a trip, because compared to their cost of living at home, it was relatively cheap there. Apart from the European cities, the entire journey from Yugoslavia to Nepal was for the Americans incredibly low priced and they could afford to live modestly as they traveled. It was also at that time much safer to hitchhike. Many traveled along the trail in a classic Volkswagen van, the vehicle that became symbolic of the hippie movement.

Some of the travelers accepted volunteer positions with the Peace Corps or development projects sponsored by Europe and tended to spend much more time with the locals than the average tourist.

Their voyage was also, according to many anecdotes, one of dope—from smoking joints in Amsterdam and London to the hashish found in Afghanistan, to everything they could find in India and Nepal.

The Hippie Trail represented an alternative Silk Road on which, instead of silk and spices, freedom and love were the ultimate gains. It was a kind of pilgrimage for many Americans who felt suffocated by the growth of materialism. The trail was a search for oneself and spiritual enlightenment through using different types of drugs or exploring various forms of religion. An escape from the “evil West” into the “more humane” side of the world.

“Be Your Own Goddess” art bus (1967 VW Kombi)

The Huffington Post published an article in 2013, “When Afghanistan Was Just a Stop on the Hippie Trail” written by Christian Caryl. It is painful to read this article today when it describes with such nostalgia what Afghanistan once was: an impoverished place at a moment of modernization, home to a curious people open for discussion with the “strange foreigners.”

Caryl writes about Kabul as a place where, at the time, the American seekers of enlightenment could easily afford to wander around for days and even weeks, many staying at the Sigi’s Hotel, which became a landmark on the trail. Afghanistan was a beautiful stopping point and it is sad to read how its people, who were open-minded about modernity and eager for prosperity, had their spirits broken by the Russian invasion of 1979.

Hippies sitting with the locals in Chiang Mai, Thailand, November 1973.
Author: Catatonique. CC BY-SA 3.0

The “Intrepids,” as the young, long-haired Americans used to call themselves, were indeed united in love on their voyage. They left messages with travel tips on the walls of The Pudding Shop in Istanbul and also wrote promises that they would find each other on the beaches of Goa or the streets of Kashmir.

The Intrepids weren’t just pioneers of the holy trail that leads from India to Southeast Asia; they also established an alternative human economy for the locals, who organized low-budget bus trips and cheap hostels. There were religious leaders who specialized exclusively in transcendental awakening for foreigners in India and Nepal. The “Old Freak Street” as the locals call it still exists in Kathmandu, and it is dedicated to the hippie pilgrims of the time.

Freak Street in Kathmandu.
Author: Holynow. CC BY-SA 3.0

Unfortunately, things changed after 1979. Afghanistan was closed due to the Soviet invasion and the Iranian Revolution. After the Arab-Israeli War that began in 1973, there were strict visa restrictions placed on Western citizens in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. With the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, tensions could be felt all around and traveling wasn’t as safe as before. Places like Kashmir and Chitral became less welcoming than they used to be because of unrest in the area.

Hippie Truck interior, 1968.
Author: Founders4. CC BY-SA 3.0

The hippies caught the last train to a world that nobody expected would one day cease to exist. They created a trail of which half is lost in history due to politics and terror. The Westerners who traveled the East during those two decades are considered pioneers of the spiritual journeys around the Indian subcontinent, Nepal, and Southeast Asia, but their style and naivety were unique.

Read another story from us: Volkswagen is bringing back the Popular “Hippie Van” as the brand new and stylish “I.D. Buzz”

Tourism, essentially pioneered by the hippies, ultimately destroyed local cultures. Profiteers of the ever-globalizing economies led to the sterilization of cultural places. Having photos taken in certain locations became the ultimate goal for tourists, and locals established a system of profiting from Western money with little curiosity about their visitors. Traveling became such an obligatory part of many cultures that there are those on journeys who feel at home wherever they go. Fortunately, there are still some stunning places not yet invaded by tourism, and hopefully, the greatest effort can be made to take care of them.